Hi just let me say that this post took me ALMOST 2 weeks to write because I wanted to make sure that I had included useful tips but also wanted to keep it short. Holidays, busy time, other things to do…I get it.
Well it’s December and you all know what that means, pretty soon we’ll be seeing photos of pretty well lit Christmas trees on Instagram. When I started out I had such a hard time with this. I have a professional background and can shoot almost anything but Christmas lights have always given me a run for my money. It took me a long time get this down and I want to share with you what I’ve learned.
Shoot in the dark
If you want to capture your holiday tree in all its glory, it’s best to take photos at night. Make sure that the room is dimly lit, preferably with only the tree lights to serve as your primary light source. This enhances the appearance of the lights in your tree, which allows you to make them the primary focus.
Since you won’t have a lot of ambient lighting to work with, you’ll need to tweak your camera settings to ensure that your tree is properly exposed. Make sure to use your maximum aperture, set your ISO to its highest setting (but watch out for noise), and use a shutter speed of around 1/30 to 1/60. The settings that will work for you will depend entirely on your unique circumstances, so take multiple photos and tweak your camera’s exposure settings as you go to find the right combination that works for you.
Don’t use flash
Do not use your on-camera flash—EVER! In situations where the scene is just too dark and you have no other choice, then use an external flash. This is usually the case when including people in the photo, as the lights from the tree (and the little ambient lighting you do get from other light sources in the room) won’t be able to light their faces properly. In this case, you will almost definitely need to use the (external) flash.
One way to check whether you need your flash or not is to use a hand held light meter to measure the light on your subjects’ faces. If the exposure is too dark, then go ahead and use your flash.
I just use my camera’s built-in light meter and adjust my settings, I take a few test shots, to check the Exposure and see where I’m at. Ideally, when you do this your meter should read around zero, which is at the middle of the scale. Keep in mind that this will give you an exposure reading of the entire scene, and not just of the faces of your subject.
When shooting with flash, make sure to position your subject/s away from the tree, ideally at least 5 to 6 feet away. I usually turn my flash so its not pointing at my subjects and let it bounce. If not the light from your flash can wash out the string lights in your tree, making it look “flat” in pictures.
Use a Tripod
Slow shutter speeds are recommended when photographing holiday trees—especially if you want to showcase the beautiful string lights, which typically demand a darker setting to allow the lights to shine. But shooting handheld will most likely result in blurry photos, you’ll need to use a sturdy tripod or monopod to keep your camera perfectly still.
In the event that you don’t have access to your tripod, you can prop your camera on a chair, countertop, table, or any steady surface, then set your camera’s timer or use a remote shutter release which is available via a mobile app on many brands.
Keep Your ISO Low
Start with the ISO at around 400. If your photos are too dark, increase it, but know that any increase to the ISO will degrade image quality. It may not be enough to notice, but you’ll get technical degradation nonetheless. Any time you’re on a tripod, go all out with the lowest ISO possible. Low ISO means higher quality, because if you use a super high ISO, your image will be grainy. If you need more light, increase the exposure time (slow shutter speed) instead of increasing the ISO. This prevents the grain that would’ve been introduced by the higher ISO, but it leaves your photo vulnerable to blurry moving subjects (kids, flying reindeer, trees in the wind). Plus, long exposure captures the full glory of the light display.
I hope this helps you in creating some memorable images this holiday season. I’m gonna ask you to share your post on Instagram using the hast tag #lattesandlenses.